Friday, July 19, 2013

The Act of Killing at the Vancity Theatre: Joshua Oppenheimer interview

You may have noted my Straight interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, discussing his remarkable new film The Act of Killing - an absolute MUST SEE for anyone with discerning tastes, opening this weekend at the Vancity Theatre (theatrical cut showtimes here, director's cut showtimes here). In fact, I got to talk at greater length with Oppenheimer than the Straight piece suggests - a somewhat technologically challenged interview that began on Skype, as Oppenheimer was being driven from one set of interviews to another, then, when Skype failed, ended up being recorded with my microphone pressed up against my cellphone's speaker.

If we begin on a fairly grim note, understand that the film is nonetheless a strangely wondrous experience - surreal, beautiful, funny, and very human -  in spite of the serious, sober, and upsetting themes that run throughout it. There is a sort of "moral culture shock" at seeing how comfortable some of the former death squaddies are at talking about their past actions that  places you in a very strange relationship to the images on the screen, which is only heightened by the lack of explanation Oppenheimer provides about how certain things ended up being filmed (I'm still not sure what the hell the gigantic man-made fish sequence is all about, but it's the perfect way for the film to begin; we are plunged in at the deep end from the outset - it's the ultimate we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore opening...).
Joshua Oppenheimer, standing, and three of the Indonesian Paramilitaries (L-R: Safit Pardede, Anwar Congo, and Adi Zulkadry)

AM: Tom Charity (whose own interview with Oppenheimer is here) gave me a thumbnail sketch of the origins of the project - that you had initially wanted to interview the survivors and relatives of the 1965 purge in Indonesia, but they were afraid to get before the cameras - but that you discovered that the killers were more than willing to talk... Could you elaborate on that?

JO: Well, I went to Indonesia for the first time in 2001, to make a film (The Globalisation Tapes) about a community of plantation workers that were struggling to organize a union in a place where unions had been until very recently illegal... I found myself on a Belgian palm oil plantation about sixty miles from the city of Medan, where I ultimately made The Act of Killing. And I found that the women workers in this plantation were spraying a herbicide that was killing them. It was dissolving their livers, and they were dying in their 40's, and they really needed a union, so they wouldn't be killing themselves. These were the friends I was living with and making this film with. And it turned out that the biggest obstacle in organizing a union was fear - fear because their parents, their aunts, their grandparents, their uncles - had been in a strong union until 1965. It had been fairly effective, but they were accused of being communist sympathizers during the genocide, and put in concentration camps and then killed by the army. And they were afraid this could happen to them again. This was my first encounter with Indonesia, and my first encounter with the genocide. And I made that film, and then I quickly went back to Indonesia. I knew this was a terribly important story, not just about what happened in 1965, but an ongoing regime of fear and violence and impunity and corruption that was still in place today. And because I came to this via a Belgian plantation company, I understood from the outset that it involved how everything we buy is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it; there was a story here about the conditions under which the workers who make everything we buy toil. And so I went back promptly to Indonesia and found that everytime we tried to film in a more focused way about the 1965-1966 killings, the military would come - the police would stop us, the plantation administration would stop us in the form of security guards... we would be stopped. And meanwhile the survivors would sometimes send me on these pretty painful missions to meet neighbours that they knew had been involved with the killings, to see if they knew about how their relatives had died - because they never had been given confirmation that their relatives had died. They just knew that they'd been taken away, and never returned; and therefore they felt guilty even mourning them, because they didn't have closure that comes from knowing someone died. They still had this tragic hope that the person might still be alive.

AM: Right.

JO: So I started filming the perpetrators then - and they were boastful and open, much like Anwar is, in the first scene where I take him to the roof, and he shows how he killed, and then dances. That was the very first time I filmed with him, and that was typical. It was as though I'd wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and the Nazis were still in power - this is how people would speak, especially if the Holocaust had been widely celebrated as it happened by the west, which was the case with the 1965-1966 genocide. It felt like it was such an enormous story, and so important - an opportunity to explore how we as human beings build our normality on the basis of violence and tell stories to run away from the most painful aspects of our reality. And I also understood from the outset - because I started this project with plantation workers who were dying, because they were too afraid, as a result of this history, to make a union that would prevent them from poisoning themselves; and they were making palm oil that goes into our margarine, our skin creams, our ice creams - because of that I realized that this is not some distant, far-off reality; this is the underbelly of our reality, it is part of us, we are part of this. We depend on this reality for our everyday living, and in that sense, we depend on Anwar and his friends, and the world you see in The Act of Killing. We are all in a way much closer to perpetrators than we might like to think.

A smiling Anwar Congo demonstrates his long-distance garroting technique, useful for avoiding getting blood on you

AM: The sequence at the end of the film, where Anwar revisits the roof, his hair is white. And I'm curious - because he dies his hair black for much of the film, after we first meet him - if that scene is being shown out of sequence, or if it's occurring much later, after his hair has grown out?

JO: It's the very last thing I filmed - it's six months after the previous (scene), and his black hair has grown out again. Production went like this: I would go and I would shoot for three, four months at a time, and I would come home with anywhere between one hundred and seven hundred hours of footage, depending on the shoot, and work through that material, and think about what I needed to film next. I'd go back (portion untranscribable) and anywhere between three months and eight months would have passed, and Anwar's black hair, that he dyed for the re-enactments, would have grown out and turned white again. Hence the changes of hair colour you see through the film; it's not out-of-sequence. The film is very largely chronological, except for the high-ranking political leaders, who I filmed at the end, so as not to jeopardize my access and not get us all arrested before the rest of the movie was shot.

AM: What have the reactions been in Indonesia?

JO: The film has been screened very widely, since the 10th of December last year - International Human Rights Day. There were fifty screenings in thirty cities on that date. As of the beginning of April, there have been 500 screenings in ninety-five cities. It's grown ever since, with more screenings each week than the previous week. The Indonesian media in response to the film has started to produce very extensive investigative reports about the killings and about the film. The largest news magazine, for example, Tempo magazine, published a special double edition about the film on the first of October, with 75 pages of boastful testimony from perpetrators all over the country, plus about 25 pages about the movie. And that really set the tone for the rest of the coverage, where the media has said, 'my gosh, this is so powerful and so undeniable, because it's coming from the perpetrators themselves.' And these men - if they were really heroes, these 'founding fathers' of the regime, in a way, they would be enjoying the fruits of their heroic victory in their happy retirement, but by the end of the film, they either are destroyed by what they've done - Anwar is devastated by it; the rest of them - Adi for example - are totally hollow... And these news producers and editors and publishers are faced with a pretty stark choice. They're members of the Indonesian establishment, they're in their middle age: do they want to grow old as perpetrators or do they want to take a stand? And that's starting with Tempo magazine, the largest newsmagazine in Indonesia. The Indonesian media has really started to report on what happened, and their 47 year silence about it. So the film is helping to catalyze a key change in how Indonesia is talking about its past, and now there's a movement for presidential apologies, a truth commission, for reconciliation processes...

AM: And the re-enactments we're seeing, the film noir stagings of the killings, the fish, the stranger material in the film - these are directed by Anwar and the others, these are their own ideas?

JO: Those scenes were made like this - I was Anwar's crew; Anwar's not a filmmaker - though Herman was a great assistant director. (Portion untranscribable). We would create spaces where we shoot with two cameras, where Anwar would be free to set up a scene, direct a scene, tell people what he wanted to do - improvise the scene, and call cut; or if it was too emotional for him to call cut, I would call cut when the scene was over. And then he'd reflect on the scene, all in real time, captured by two cameras. So that's typically how the non-musical scenes worked; the musical scenes were shot like musical numbers, with a choreographer and a costume designer, whom Anwar chose, in locations which Anwar picked.

AM: Herman Koto (pictured below with a prop severed head) seems a very unusual character. Did he have a background in film? 

JO:  He had a background in acting. Now that I remember it, one of the assistant directors who is directing the audition in the street [with Koto] at the beginning, he actually did have a background in film; he was an assistant director in action movies in Jakarta. But Herman had a background in acting. The paramilitary group had a theatre troupe before I arrived on the scene, and Herman had been in it; Anwar cast him knowing his background in acting. When I first met Herman, this guy comes down the lane towards me wearing a singlet, with long hair - a big, scary-looking guy, and I thought, ‘oh no!’ And then I thought ‘oh yes, but of course, that’s what these men would look like.’ And he turned out to be invaluable, you're right. I think he fell in love with acting through the making of the film, and like every good actor, he discovered an actor’s loyalty to the truth, and to the emotional and moral truth of every situation that he performs in. That's what you have to do to be a good actor. So he played this role throughout the film of somehow guiding Anwar, leading Anwar - by force, or gently - back to the truth, back to the pain that Anwar was trying to deal with through making the film, but also trying to run away from. I know in Vancouver that Tom is opening the long version of the film - you really see the evolution of their relationship very clearly in the longer version. It shows the role he had in the shooting.

AM: How does he end up in drag so often?

JO (see his answer in the Straight article). I don't know if Anwar cast Herman in drag to pick on him, or because (portion untranscribable). Of course we know that Herman's not gay. I’m gay, and I can see that if Herman were gay, it would simply not be funny at all. It’s funny because he’s clearly not gay, he's a big brutish gangster - but he’s also a soft-hearted man and father, and I think he's fabulous in drag. I wish those dresses would fit me - I would have taken them. But they were all bloodstained at the end...

AM (laughs; portion untranscribable).
Oppenheimer "directing" the torching of a village

 JO: I think because Herman plays this important role, bringing Anwar back to the truth, he really likes the film; he really likes the way film exposes the hypocrisy around him, by which he has felt, over his life, used, by these hypocritical gangsters and paramilitary movement - the politicians that hired him to be their goon. Anwar has also watched the film and I think you can say he feels very moved by the film. His response to the film was, 'this is an honest film, and I'm glad that I got to be so honest; it shows what it's like to be me.' And since he saw it on the first of November last year, as much as it has been transformative and useful for the Indonesian human rights community, he actually has also stood by the film.

AM: I'm glad to hear that. I admit - I had questioned his sincerity at points in the film; where he breaks down towards the end of the film, I wondered if he was performing to the camera.

JO: I think towards the end of the film, there's this moment just before that where he says to me, in desperation, really, 'don't I feel what my victims felt' - wanting me to say yes, because if he feels what his victims felt, then he puts his victims in the position of nothing more than being in a movie. And that's insincere; but I think when I say to him, 'no, of course you victims felt much worse than this Anwar, because they knew they were going to be killed' - I think for him the bottom falls out from under him. And I think, that final scene when I took him back to that office... I had been struggling to get back in there since the first time I filmed him; I didn't know then what had happened in that office, when I first filmed it, because I didn't know him yet. And I was struggling to get permission to get back in there, and finally a new shopkeeper took over and gave us permission. The first time back, at the end of the shoot, I naively thought that I could get him to walk through that space quietly and tell me what happened there [as he does earlier in the film, when demonstrating his garroting technique, pictured above]. And that's what he's trying to do. I was thinking I'd use the scene earlier in the film, and it turned out that it was still raw - from the experience of five years of shooting, suddenly he's caught totally unaware and he starts retching. He doesn't have words for what's happening to him - I'm not sure I have words for it, either. But I think suddenly in that moment - he's trying to do what I asked him to do, take me through that route and say what happened, again. And he doesn't know what's happening to him. It's like his body is physically rejecting the words he's speaking, like he's trying to vomit up the ghosts that haunt him, only to find that nothing comes up. Because the ghosts that haunt him are his own past, and insofar as we are all our own pasts, he will never be [free?] of it. Insofar as he has any conscious thoughts about what is going on with his body, perhaps he's hoping I'll be able to cut that out, and deliver what I asked for, which is a simple explanation of what had happened there. I think that's why the final scene has that peculiar sense...

AM: I see.

JO:  It's tempting when we look at documentary to think - either people are totally unaware of the camera, in which case things are authentic and natural, or else things are staged. And of course in reality, we're always aware of the camera in documentary, and if we're not looking at it, its because we've been asked not to look at it. In reality, the camera provides a moment, an occasion through which you can safely - a momentous occasion where you show things that you otherwise would not show; in this case, it becomes a safe space for this physical reaction to happen. He knows unconsciously he's safe, and so these feelings come to the surface. And I think but of course he's fluent in how to use the space - he's used to being filmed, of course he's conscious of the camera; the film is made up of a succession of stagings that allow for these very authentic emotions to come through.
Koto "tortures" Congo in a framegrab of the film noir sequences

AM: Speaking that, there's a scene where someone - Safit Pardede - is shaking down merchants in Chinatown. You leave it a bit ambiguous as to whether this is a re-enactment or if it's something that actually happened...

JO: He's actually shaking down merchants in Chinatown! I don't think I leave it ambiguous - there's nothing to suggest it's a re-enactment there, so far as I know, except that there's re-enactments elsewhere in the film. What I did, because I felt there was a moral grey zone, there was a line there, I felt it was essential to explain to everybody in the market why I was there, and I felt that it was essential that I pay everybody back. So after they were done shaking people down, they would move on, and I said, 'wait for me a few meters away, and I will get a release form signed,' but really what I was doing was explaining why we were there and paying everybody back...

For those wanting more information on this remarkable documentary, executive producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog enthuse about the film here; in no way are they waxing hyperbolic, as this movie is every bit as provocative and rich as they suggest.

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